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La Follette grad Allison Uselman crowned in annual magazine fiction and poetry contest

Gayle Worland | Wisconsin State Journal

Allison Uselman likes to collect moments.

Maybe it’s a bit of conversation between two strangers that she’ll jot onto a scrap of paper. Or a passing thought, or an hour in a garden, that strikes her enough that she’ll put it in writing and tuck that treasure inside a notebook.

Those small bits, taken together, might eventually turn into a short story, as they did with “Honor Cord,” which won Uselman first place in the statewide 2021 “Wisconsin People & Ideas” Fiction and Poetry Contest.

“Honor Cord” was selected from among 82 short stories submitted to the magazine, which is published by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. Vivid, multilayered and memorable, “Honor Cord” is “such a poignant and mysterious story, I started again from the beginning the moment I had finished,” said the contest’s lead fiction judge, Chris Fink.

Jennifer Fandel topped the poetry division with her poem “The Father.”

Equally memorable, with breathtaking imagery, “The Father” beat out 701 other entries in its category. Lead poetry judge Brenda Cárdenas called the winner “exceptional in its marriage of content and form” and a work that “kept me eagerly plunging into each new line as I journeyed through the poem.”

The annual contest honors previously unpublished work from writers from all over Wisconsin. What’s different this year is that both Uselman and Fandel happen to live in Madison.

“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I don’t remember both writers ever being from Madison,” said editor Jason Smith. “We have great writers in every corner of the state.”

Other honorees

In the 2021 fiction category, second-place honors went to Kim Suhr of Wales, and third place to Yvette Viets Flaten of Eau Claire. Madison writers Holly Hilliard, Emily Mills and Carrie Rothburd were among six Wisconsin fiction writers who received honorable mentions.

David Southward of Milwaukee and Paula Schulz of Slinger won second- and third-place honors, respectively, for poetry. Honorable mentions in the poetry category went to eight poets, including John Freiburger, Fitchburg; Dominic Holt, Monona; Mark J. Knickelbine, Mount Horeb; and Moises Villavicencio Barras, Madison.

As part of their first-place wins, Uselman and Fandel will receive $500 and a one-week writer’s residency at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts in Mineral Point. They will read their winning entries in a virtual presentation at the 2021 Wisconsin Book Festival, and have their work published in the Fall 2021 issue of the magazine.

Winning the statewide fiction and poetry contests can be “so transformative,” said Smith, especially for previously unpublished writers who now can see themselves as accomplished fiction writers and poets.

“The contest is a great way for them to turn the corner and start thinking of themselves in that way.”

Previous winners have gone on to other honors, he said. Michael Hopkins of Neenah won third place for fiction in the 2019 contest — and now his short story “Mirror Box” will appear in the upcoming anthology “Coolest American Stories 2022” with the title “The Tallest Mountain in the World.” And Jill Stukenberg of Wausau, winner of the fiction contest in 2012, recently won the Big Moose prize from Black Lawrence Press. Her novel, “Labor Day,” will be published in fall 2022.

Haunting imagery

A large number of first-place poetry contest winners — including former Badgers linebacker Dion Kempthorne of Richland Center — have poems in “Hope is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic,” a recently published anthology by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

That includes Fandel, who along with that and her “Wisconsin People & Ideas” win has seen her work appear in “The American Journal of Poetry,” “The Baltimore Review” and more. Administrator at the UW-Madison Writing Center, which serves 10,000 students a year, Fandel also teaches poetry at Oakhill Correctional Institution through the Wisconsin Prison Humanities Project and tutors students in writing at Oakhill through the Odyssey Beyond Bars college program.

Fandel grew up in Eau Claire but lived outside Wisconsin for 20 years before returning in 2017. She’s part of a four-person writers group that meets to critique one another’s work, as well as to send their work out to potential publishers.

“The Father” came to her quickly last winter. The poem conjures memories of a now-gone parent who was emotionally absent when alive, but whose passing still leaves a void, with “the strange — alchemy of love and duty, — and the anger that rises from it.”

Fandel uses the image of a dog and a fishing hole grounded in family lore: Her husband’s great-grandfather, who often fished, told people that when he died he would come back as a dog. And sure enough, after his passing, a black dog would show up at family events and the local fishing hole.

Fandel made the dog white in “The Father,” where “the place is its own character, in a sense,” she explained.

“The fishing hole haunted by the white dog is my vision of northern Wisconsin, a place that I’m very familiar with,” she said. “On overcast autumn days, the landscape itself feels like it’s brooding on the past. It’s an honor to have this poem chosen because it’s set so deeply in Wisconsin — at least in my own mind.”

For Fandel, the stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic gave her more time to write. “It felt like time was more expansive,” she said. Life is busier now, and she’s back to commuting to campus for work and teaching at Oakhill.

“For me, poetry is a way to wrestle with things that I struggle with, a way to try to make sense of the world I move through,” she said. “There’s no instant healing in poetry, but I firmly believe that the practice of writing — of finding our voice and growing confident in it — does bring us closer to understanding ourselves and the world.”

Masterful ambiguities

Uselman wrote “Honor Cord” earlier this spring after visits to the Monona Public Library, where she had been reading book after book about the prairie.

She became fascinated with how fire both burns and heals the prairie, a metaphor she uses frequently in her winning short story.

“It was not a hick town but rather a prairie town,” the narrative begins, “one where there was often nothing for young people to do but drive around and attempt to reckon with the vastness of the land.”

What follows is a complex, sometimes perplexing story often taking place in the mind of high school student Violet Wells.

Uselman, 23, grew up in Madison and attended La Follette High School before earning a degree at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. In college she studied her dual passions: creative writing and art. Last year her short story “Morrow’s Nut House After Dark” won an Honorable Mention in the contest.

Uselman was at her job as a teller at Monona Bank when her phone buzzed with the news that she’d won this year’s competition. She ignored the call, thinking it was spam, she said. But when she later heard the voicemail that Smith left to congratulate her, “I called my parents right away,” she said. “My dad screamed.”

No lightning bolt

The second of four children, Uselman has an apartment in the Atwood neighborhood. Most of her furniture, including a drawing desk, was built by her father.

“In all of 2020, I was basically drawing and not writing. Then it flipped,” she said of her creative work. “Different images and ideas will prompt me to do one or another.”

Uselman likes to gather a lot of bits and pieces, sometimes as notes in her phone, before she sets to writing a story.

“I don’t like this idea that inspiration just comes and strikes you” out of nowhere, she said. “It takes me a really long time to start writing a story. I spend a lot of time collecting things, like images or a bit of dialogue.”

She reads widely, often returning to the work of John Irving, Joan Didion and J.D. Salinger.

When she needed inspiration for “Honor Cord,” she re-read the chapter “Speaking of Courage” from “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. The Vietnam vet in the story yearns to tell others about what he witnessed during the war, but cannot bring himself to. Violet in “Honor Cord,” too, carries on an inner dialogue.

Uselman will read her story in a virtual presentation at 7 p.m. Oct. 28. She plans to keep working and saving money for graduate school, she said — but whether she will study art or writing, she has yet to decide.

This article was originally published by The Wisconsin State Journal on September 24, 2021. To view the full story on their website, please click here.

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